Bill Belichick’s Versatile Secondary Designed to Limit Dolphins’ Offense

Bill Belichick’s ‘positionless’ secondary built to slow down Dolphins originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

FOXBORO — Funny, isn’t it? The one Patriots-Dolphins matchup that has been the focus in media circles, both in New England and Miami, is one where the two names involved won’t actually share the field.

That’s right, this is “‘Bama versus ‘Bama” at the quarterback position, as Tua Tagovailoa put it. He’ll square off against old backup Mac Jones at Gillette Stadium on “Sunday Night Football”, with each representing clashing philosophies in the process.

Will this game go to the quarterback whose franchise preaches ball-security and the idea that “you can’t win the game until you first stop from losing?”

Or will the light-up-the-scoreboard offense prevail, with its quarterback who has a laid-back attitude and often a devil-may-care style with the football in his hands?

Tagovailoa shredded the Chargers in Week 1, but there’s reason to believe his performance will play out much differently in Week 2. The last time he faced the Patriots, all the way back in Week 1 of last season, he and his offensive teammates posted just 13 offensive points. He was sacked three times. Meanwhile, star receiver Tyreek Hill got his but didn’t break the game open, finishing with eight catches for 94 yards.

Expect plenty of zone from Bill Belichick, Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo this time around. On 23 zone dropbacks in Week 1 of last season, Tagovailoa averaged just 6.4 yards per attempt and a quarterback rating of 81.8 — 5.3 yards per attempt and 64 rating points fewer than when the Patriots were in man-to-man coverage, per Sports Info Solutions.

The Patriots will mix their coverages as they always do, but whether it’s zone or man, expect them to get as physical as the officials will allow with Dolphins receivers.

Trying to beat Hill and Jaylen Waddle consistently in footraces up and down the field wouldn’t be a winning formula for any defense, and it’s not what they’ve done when limiting Hill in past matchups. But having speed on the field is vital, and it bears watching whether or not Jonathan Jones (ankle, questionable) will be available to the Patriots since his speed and savvy have been a game-changer against Hill in recent seasons. In his last five games against the Patriots — dating back to the 2018 AFC Championship Game — he’s averaged 63.4 yards on seven targets.

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If Jones can’t go, the Patriots will need another defensive back to step up as the primary coverage option. Perhaps that’s rookie Christian Gonzalez, who’s longer and more angular than Jones but has excellent change-of-direction ability, or it could be second-year speedster Marcus Jones. Either way, as was the case when Jones has matched with Hill, there will be help over the top to prevent big plays.

Having versatile do-it-all corners and safeties should help with this matchup. The Patriots are, in fact, built for this matchup in some ways. They have high-IQ athletes who can exchange responsibilities — playing positionless football, if you will — that would allow for the team to keep up with Hill and Waddle without actually having to run with them.

If the Patriots can show Tagovailoa they’re playing man coverage only to then pass Hill off on a deep crossing route from a corner to a safety and have him out-leveraged, that could be enough to force Tagovailoa to hold onto the football. And if he holds onto it, that may allow a deep stable of Patriots pass-rushers to go home against an offensive line loaded with question marks. Or it could force Tagovailoa into some bad decisions.

And he’ll make some bad decisions. His seemingly nonchalant demeanor in the pocket has gotten him into trouble at times, like when he threw three late interceptions against the Packers on Christmas last year, causing the Dolphins to finish the month of December winless for only the second time in team history. He had the fifth-highest turnover-worthy-play percentage in the NFL last year, per Pro Football Focus.

The Patriots and Mac Jones have had ball-security issues themselves, including last week when two first-quarter turnovers helped put them in a 16-0 hole. But if they can clean up their self-inflicted wounds, if they can put together clock-killing drives to keep Tagovailoa and his weapons on the sidelines, Jones could end up winning the battle of ‘Bama passers.

Matchup to win the first half

Patriots run game vs. Dolphins defense

The Patriots will have David Andrews, which is massive for them when it comes to getting their offensive line unit on the same page. Who’s around him, though? No one has been ruled out to this point, but Trent Brown (concussion) is unlikely to play. That could mean veteran Vederian Lowe — acquired just before the start of the season — steps in at left tackle. The availability of guards Cole Strange (knee) and Mike Onwenu (ankle) remains uncertain. Calvin Anderson could stick on the right side of the line, where he started Week 1, though he’s prepared to play at both tackle spots.

If the Patriots want to win the time-of-possession battle, if they’d like to keep some variety alive in their play-calling, they’ll need to run it. Though they’re banged up, the good news for them is that the Dolphins were trounced in the run game a week ago. The Chargers gained 233 yards on the ground on an average of 5.8 per carry, and they did so leaning slightly toward the types of gap schemes — as opposed to zone-blocking schemes — the Patriots often tend to prefer.

Matchup that will surprise you

Mac Jones vs. Vic Fangio 

Remember when the Patriots came into the 2017 season trying to play a good deal of zone coverages? It was an out-and-out disaster at times. Eventually they leaned into their personnel in the secondary and became one of the most man-heavy teams in football.

It feels like the Dolphins are trying to find themselves in a similar manner right now. Though unlike that Patriots shape-shift defense, a drastic change in scheme isn’t coming for Miami. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has long favored two-high-safety shells and zone coverages. About a “180 degree” change, Bill Belichick acknowledged, from when they were led by man-to-man-loving coaches — parts of that 2017 Patriots staff — Brian Flores and Josh Boyer.

The Patriots, therefore, may be catching the Dolphins at the right time as they adapt to a new scheme. They’re coming off a dreadful performance in Los Angeles, having given up 433 total yards and four touchdowns on five red-zone trips for the Chargers.

One matchup to watch: Kendrick Bourne, who was Mac Jones’ “go-to guy,” Jones said after peppering Bourne with 11 targets in Week 1. He could see plenty of former All-Pro corner Xavien Howard, who racked up three penalties — two pass interference, one defensive holding — and hasn’t looked like the same player the last couple of years.

If the Patriots can confuse Dolphins defensive backs as to their assignments when seeing bunches and stack releases from receivers — things that gave the Eagles and their Fangio-inspired defensive scheme fits in Week 1 — then it could be a productive day for Jones. Even with a jumbled offensive line in front of him.

Matchup that will bring you joy

Patriots pass-rushers v. Dolphins offensive line

What if I told you Isaiah Wynn is arguably the opposition’s best pass-protector? Would that bring you joy? Because it might be the case this weekend. He didn’t allow a pressure in Week 1, playing at left guard for his new team.

But one would think that the Patriots would have some insight into Wynn’s style of play that would give them a little edge to try to exploit in this matchup. Even if they can’t, there are other weak links along Tagovailoa’s chain of protectors. If veteran tackle Terron Armstead can’t go (questionable with back, ankle and knee injuries) then Kendall Lamb will likely fill in after allowing five pressures a week ago. (Even if Armstead can play, talented as he is, he hasn’t played a game since Christmas of last year.) On the opposite side resides right tackle Austin Jackson (four pressures allowed in Week 1), who has had an underwhelming career as a 2020 first-round pick.

The Patriots have the ability to throw a rotation of fresh rushers Miami’s way with Matthew Judon, Josh Uche, Deatrich Wise, Christian Barmore and Keion White all looking like daunting challenges for this group of Dolphins linemen.

Would the Patriots send extra rushers at Tagovailoa? They may not need to given the matchup, and it may not be the best idea if they do. Tagovailoa — with quick and explosive outlet options available to him under duress — was the highest-rated quarterback in football last year when blitzed (116.1).

Matchup that could take years off your life

Patriots offensive line vs. Dolphins pass-rushers

One area where the Dolphins defense shined in Week 1? When Jaelen Phillips had an opportunity to rush the passer, he was hard to handle. He finished with a whopping seven pressures — all coming off the offensive right side of the line. That could mean a challenging matchup for Calvin Anderson if that’s where he sticks in Week 2.

Bradley Chubb was a bit of a disappointment in Miami last season as a pass-rusher. He finished 25th in the NFL in pressures among edge-defenders, two behind Wise. But that matchup could still be a challenging one for the Patriots if it’s Vederian Lowe — four career games, zero starts — on Jones’ blind side.

One thing to keep an eye on when it comes to New England’s tackle play: Comfort with the cadence. Each quarterback is different. And these new Patriots tackles haven’t had a ton in the way of reps with Jones. If the Patriots have to keep it relatively simple in order to account for a fresh face on the line, does that give Chubb or Phillips an advantage in terms of being able to time the snap count and get a jump on their pursuit of the passer?

Matchup that will determine the outcome

Bill Belichick vs. Mike McDaniel motions 

The speed Hill and Waddle bring to the table is a challenge in its own right. But when that speed is so rarely static at the line of scrimmage, it makes them a problem with seemingly few solutions.

Jon Jones compared their use of motion at the snap — and specifically how it gets Miami playmakers up to full speed before the ball is put in play — to what you see in the Canadian Football League, where receivers can hit the line of scrimmage moving forward with a running start. Dolphins receivers have to be traveling along the line of scrimmage to motion legally, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still building speed all the same.

You can try to jam Dolphins receivers at the line, even if they’re motioning, but it’s easier said than done.

“When you look at this offense, you see a lot of speed,” Judon said this week. “It’s made for a street-ball kind of a game… It’s kind of playing a game of freeze tag with these guys. You try to get your hands on them, but they are so quick, so athletic.”

In reality, there is no one single answer for the motions head coach Mike McDaniel has schemed up, including a short “out” motion that gave the Chargers all kinds of trouble in Week 1.

Outside linebackers or defensive backs can try to slow them down by contacting them. Disguising coverages to bait Tagovailoa into a bad throw could work in spurts. Handling motioning receivers like super-charged backs out of the backfield and “peeling” with edge-defenders to take away quick catch-and-run opportunities is an option — as the Patriots used to do with speedy backs like LeSean McCoy or Reggie Bush.

Former Patriots edge-defender Rob Ninkovich provided a variety of options for how the team can defend these motions on the latest Next Pats. But he acknowledged that it’s a tall task given the physical skill sets in the Dolphins huddle.

🔊 Next Pats: Rob Ninkovich says Keion White has the potential to be “SUPER ELITE”Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

“If you have No. 10 close to anyone at the line of scrimmage, try to get your hands on him, at any point,” Ninkovich said of Hill. “Just to slow him down a little bit. Just a little bit. Because what you want to do is screw up how he wants to release… I would anticipate any time you can get your hands on him just a little bit, they’re going to try to slow him down if he’s anywhere close to the line of scrimmage.”

Ninkovich added: “You’re not just letting those guys release into the flat or get into their route with nothing in their way. They build speed and they’re so fast. You always have to account for Tyreek. I can guarantee this week Bill is pounding the podium saying, ‘No. 10. No. 10. No. 10. We have to make sure we know where he’s at, at all times.’ “

Prediction: Patriots 24, Dolphins 23

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